By Cait Stevenson
For all our evidence of the joy (and utility in transportation) northerners took in skating on frozen water in winter, the extent of summer swimming in medieval Europe is a fairly open question. We know that some people certainly could swim, although the skill was rare enough to be remarked.
In his late fourteenth-century Piers Plowman, William Langland offers a short exemplum: if two strong men are cast into the Thames, with one knowing how to swim and dive and the other untrained, which one will be more afraid? And when a lady-in-waiting to the queen of Scotland, on an afternoon’s outing in 1273, pushed a squire into the river as a flirty joke, he wasn’t worried in the least. Even if she had pushed him farther out, he insisted, he’d be fine because he knew how to swim.
Swimming has a role to play, too, in literary traditions from all over medieval Europe. But in contrast to the classical elevation of swimming as a way to demonstrate or increase prowess, medieval narratives tend towards the utilitarian. For example, Beowulf in Beowulf and Grettir in Grettis saga both must dive down and swim to a underwater cave to battle and defeat a monstrous woman. Arthurian stories likewise has its share of heroes confronted by water.
Late antique military theorist Vegetius, whose De Re Militari served as the basic textbook for literate medieval warriors, recommended swimming as a necessary skill for soldiers who might have to cross a river to avoid danger. Christine de Pizan, adapting Vegetius for her Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry, adds details that point to the use of tactical swimming. “It can happen, and often does,” she writes, “that they…take a shortcut, or [have] some other need such as to get whether they are going on time and in this way surprise an unsuspecting enemy.”
However, neither the advice to swim nor the reality of swimming skills seems to have extended from elite men at arms to the bulk of army or navy recruits. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Western navies finally said, “Hey, maybe our sailors should be able to swim.”
The lack of widespread swimming ability is further attested by a key quality of medieval swimming: Europeans were terrible at it.
Contact with West African kingdoms starting at the end of the Middle Ages gave Portuguese and Italian explorers their first prolonged contact with non-European swimming traditions. Over and over, the accounts marvel at the Africans’ method of swimming: “throwing one arm after another forward, as if paddling…with a scissor-like kick of the legs.”
Europeans, on the other hand, were limited to a muddling breaststroke-like progression that seems almost tailor-made to create the most possible water resistance and slowest forward motion. Even sixteenth-century authors trying to make an argument for the elegance of swimming as an art get as far as…dog paddle (“to swim like a dog”).
One aspect of swimming, though, is as evident in medieval sources as it is today. The rumor that flew around 1425 London held that the grumbling bourgeoisie and beggars wanted to throw the Bishop of Winchester into the Thames. No, not to drown him, but “to teach him to swim, with floaties.” The distraught bishop thundered to anyone who would listen that the peasants were trying to kill him.
Nudity and indignity were one thing, but some people were just plain afraid of water.
Nicholas Orme, Early British Swimming: 55 BC-AD 1719 (Exeter: Short Run Press, 1983)
Kevin Dawson, “Swimming, Surfing, and Underwater Diving in the Early Modern Atlantic and the African Diaspora,” in Carina Ray and Jeremy Rich, eds., Navigating African Maritime History (University of Newfoundland Press, 2009), 81-116.